May 21, 2020
At this week’s pastor’s check-in, we had a discussion about semantics. Is it appropriate to use the phrase “re-opening church” when, in fact, “church” never closed?
We spoke of the possibility of using the word “recongregate,” as in “congregation.” After the call concluded, I did a quick thesaurus search on the word “congregate,” and couldn’t help but laugh at the aptness of the results. To congregate: to bunch up, swarm, throng, flock.
Sadly, none of those words are good things in the age of COVID-19.
I’ve been emailing you materials: lists, guidelines, preparation suggestions…you’ve read it all and then some, finding even more materials on websites, in the news, emailed to you from friends. You already have the information you need.
Today, here in New York State, the governor (one of the more cautious in the country) has given the go-ahead to start gathering for worship in person, with careful parameters set.
These parameters come as no surprise as you’ve heard them often: Fewer than 10 people. Wear masks. Use hand sanitizer or soap and water a-plenty. Stay a minimum of six feet away from each other. Don’t have bulletins, communion plates, offering plates or hymnals; anything that requires passing something from hand-to-hand. We’ve even been told to not sing or, at very least, refrain from singing unless we’re at least ten feet from one another.
Many of our scattered region family are in states where gatherings have been permitted earlier and with fewer parameters set than New York. The clergy who have been joining on our weekly pastor’s check-in have spoken of working with their congregational leadership to make decisions for their congregation that feel right, regardless of whether restrictions have been lifted by their state government.
In light of these discussions, I keep trying to make sure I’m giving everyone the right information. But today it struck me that plenty of information is already available. Perhaps what is really needed right now is perspective.
Remember, you don’t have to start meeting in person again just because you can.
I find myself wondering if those folks who have been chomping at the bit to be able to be back in their sanctuaries worshiping in person with their congregational friends have thought through what that’s actually going to feel like.
When you’re looking around the congregation and only see eyes peeking above masks.
When you can’t touch anyone. Or hug them. Or perhaps (particularly difficult for us Belt-it-Out Baptists) even sing together.
When many of our most beloved church mothers and fathers still aren’t able to be with us as their age puts them at risk, or our beloved friends with compromised immune systems, or parents with young children who are concerned about the new and still very mysterious virus-related syndromes that have appeared lately.
Only those privileged with health and who are still within a certain age range and don’t have young children will likely feel comfortable being physically present.
And when they are in that sanctuary, they will look around them, and will still feel separated, and will feel the holes in the fellowship caused by the absence of those not so privileged.
I was recently reading a very moving, and convicting, post on Baptist News Global by Zachary Helton, in which Helton confessed to COVID-19 helping him finally really understand what Martin Luther King, Jr., meant when he penned, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” (in Why We Can’t Wait, 1964). Hear hear.
As your executive minister, I too feel the lure of the hope of being able to be physically with you, my colleagues and friends, in worship and praise. I feel with you the hope of the day when we will be able to gather together, singing rousing praise tunes and hymns, sharing in communion, giving hugs and handshakes to all. And I celebrate the work you are all doing to ensure the safety of your congregations as you have discussions with congregational leadership and what needs to be done before physically gathering again.
I also urge caution…and patience…and a willingness to have a Plan A, Plan B, and plans all the way down to Z as we just don’t know what the coming months will bring. This virus isn’t behaving the way our usual viruses do. This virus keeps revealing new and mysterious symptoms. This virus will continue to come back in waves, possibly with worse impact than the already-terrible impact of the first wave. As Christians, we must also keep in the forefront of our planning that this virus is most felt among the lesser-privileged, the poor, the marginalized, the “orphans and widows” of the Hebrew Scriptures that we are called to care for.
“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” May we make our decisions about physical gatherings in our church building with these words from Martin Luther King, Jr., ringing in our ears.
I will share with you the following decisions being made at the regional level.
• At last night’s ABCRGR executive board meeting, it was a unanimous consensus that we will be holding our scheduled Biennial Gathering in September as an online event only. We don’t see this as a loss. Instead, we see it as an opportunity to explore what possibilities technology offers us for worship, education, and fellowship in new ways.
• The region staff will continue to work from home at least until September. It is quite likely we will be working from home even after that date, but we’ll revisit the question at that time.
• Region meetings of any size will continue to be online-only until September. As above, it is quite likely that this will continue into the fall but we’ll revisit the question then.
• As executive minister, I have been struggling about what to do about in-person visits to churches once y’all do start worshiping together again in person, whenever that is. I am very concerned that the nature of my job too easily makes me a “carrier,” as I am moving from group to group and through multiple “zones” traveling across the country, and could be bringing infection with me even when I am asymptomatic. For that reason, I do not plan on making any in-person visits to churches for Sunday worship services or large-group events for the forseeable future. Again, I’ll revisit this in September. However, signs point to a rough autumn with a resurgence of the virus, so my guess is that I won’t be visiting your churches in person until early 2021. That being said, if there is a situation that really needs me to come be with you in person, we’ll figure it out and make it work. I will be scheduling virtual visits and am available to preach or otherwise participate in your worships virtually as you desire.
I am so very aware that all are not privileged enough to make the choice to work from home, nor are all privileged enough to be able to avoid public places, public transportation, or workplaces that have large numbers of people. But where we can make choices that lessen our risk of becoming infected and thereby becoming infection risks for others, we need to think deeply. With my privilege also comes my responsibility to be very aware of that single garment of mutuality.
I am praying for all of you as you make the decisions open to you in the weeks ahead. Please feel free to call upon me or your colleagues in your region family as sounding boards, to share ideas, resources, information, and perspective.
May God be with us all.
In Christ’s peace,
Rev. Dr. Sandra L. DeMott Hasenauer
American Baptist Churches of the Rochester Genesee Region